HomeBad Ass AsiansAsian American Theatre Pioneer Soon-Tek Oh Dies at Age 85

Asian American Theatre Pioneer Soon-Tek Oh Dies at Age 85

Soon-Tek Oh. Photo from Novidades Cinema – Movie News.

By Calla Carter
AsAmNews Intern

Korean American actor and theater pioneer Soon-Tek Oh died on Wednesday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, reports Variety. In his 85 years, Oh paved the way for many Asian American actors through his roles in film and on Broadway. He was best known for voicing Mulan’s father in the Disney movie and cofounding one of the nation’s first Asian American theater organizations, East West Players.

Oh was born in what is now Mokpo, South Korea. He came to the United States as a teenager and studied at the University of Southern California and later earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from UCLA, according to The Hollywood Reporter. In 2005, Oh returned to South Korea to serve as a professor at the Seoul National University of Economics.

A pioneer for Asian American actors, he appeared in the original Broadway cast of the Stephen Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures. He also had roles in television. Oh appeared eight times on Hawaii Five-O, five times on M*A*S*H, and four times on Magnum, P.I. In addition to voicing Mulan‘s Fa Zhou, Oh played Lieutenant Hip, James Bond’s ally in Hong Kong, in The Man with the Golden Gun.

In 1965, Oh cofounded the East West Players, which remains “the nation’s longest-running professional theater of color and the largest producing organization of Asian American artistic work,” according to its website. B.D. Wong, John Cho, Daniel Dae Kim, and Kal Penn are among many notable alumni of the organization.

Oh later founded the Society of Heritage Performers, a Korean American theatre group in 1999 which evolved into the Lodestone Theatre Ensemble. The group “focused on counteracting stereotypes of Asian Americans in acting and the media,” reports Comicbook.

Asian American actors Chil Kong and Tim Lounibos eulogized Soon-Tek Oh on YOMYOMF.

“He nurtured a curiosity in the history of Asian American theatre,” said Kong, cofounder of Lodestone. “[…] I began to understand that my struggles as an artist of color was a small trail off of a well-traveled highway forged on the shoulders of passionate people before me, people like Mr. Oh.”

“He awakened within me a life-changing cultural and community awareness,” wrote Tim Lounibos. “And while we continually performed and interacted with Korean American partner organizations over the next five years or so, Mr. Oh constantly coached and mentored me (sometimes severely)…and taught me life-lessons through his personal experiences and stories.”

Soon-Tek Oh’s presence on stage, in film, and in television will be felt long after his passing, not only through his work, but through generations of Asian American actors inspired by Oh, directly and indirectly.

“Recently, as Mr. Oh battled Alzheimer’s, it was tough to see him diminished in body and mind. He had always carried himself with so much positive pride and a keen awareness of others and his immediate surroundings,” wrote Lounibos. “I’m going to miss you, Appa, but now you are free to guide, direct, and perform on an entirely new stage…”

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